(Polly Wright/Narrator), Frazer Hines
(Jamie McCrimmon/The Doctor), Elliot Chapman
(Ben Jackson), Alistair Petrie
(Richard Tipple), Debbie Chazen
(Dr Goro), Matilda Ziegler
Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs
Originally Release October 2017
If previous release The Night Witches seemed custom made to highlight the limitations and contradictions of the Early Adventures format, The Outliers is a showcase for it reaching its full potential.
The first thing to immediately strike you is how well Anneke Wills’ narration is integrated into the script. Although I’m still highly sceptical of the need for narration in a full cast audio, nary a line here is redundant or duplicates character dialogue. Instead, writer Simon Guerrier has smartly concentrated the Narrator’s role on providing atmosphere and tension – with lots of lingering verbal imagery of the dank caves, dark running water and unsettlingly empty houses that populate his tale. The opening sequence of a dead body floating downriver, unwitnessed and alone, until something under the water snatches it down, feels perfectly in tone with a typical Troughton story’s beginning, but only accomplishable with narration. It’s the same meticulous recreation of style that gives us huge estates of absolutely identical prefabricated houses – which would have been a perfect budget-saving measure on TV in 1967.The performances of the cast also strike much more truly this time out as well. Although still saddled with a dazzling number of voices each – Wills doing triple duty as Young Polly, Old Polly, and Narrator at different points, while Hines has to make the Doctor, Young Jamie and Old Jamie distinguishable from each other. In fact, hearing Wills perform as both the Narrator and a Polly that’s her own age gives a new respect for just how brilliant she is. Hines, though, impresses most here, aided by dialogue that takes pains to make the Doctor feel as Troughtoneseque as possible on the page and which takes the pressure off Hines to inject 'Troughtonness' into generic lines. The combination of Guerrier and Hines allow actor to disappear completely into the role and the gaping hole you’d expect Troughton’s absence to cause is only rarely, and momentarily, noticeable.
In fact, the characterization is top notch all round. Jamie is very effectively used, the young highlander, full of courage and naivety in equal measure but quick to imagine his companions are having a slight joke at his expense with some of their more outlandish claims of aliens and technology. And there’s a keen sense of the story’s placement in mid-Season Four, with a slight edge of jealousy between Ben and newcomer Jamie over the affections of a Polly who just rolls her eyes at their posturing.
The plot into which all this atmosphere and characterization is poured is the type of light satire which often found a home in late 1960s Doctor Who, though its targets are slightly more modern. Set in that most well worn of Troughton Era locations – a future Earth colony base coming under siege by a force that moves, insidious and largely unseen as it slowly wraps its lethal tentacles around and through the settlement until the danger is realized too late. Even for that trope The Outliers’ setting is a colony on the edge. A cave system buried deep not even into a planet, but an asteroid hurtling through space, it’s both a mine extracting a highly toxic material for use in Weapons of Mass Destruction, and a construction site for a city of exiles from an overcrowded Earth. The only indigenous life is a type of barnacle; a tiny, simple shellfish which clings as precariously to the rocks as the human settlement does to viability. But they do have one strange mystery – nobody has ever seen their young. A kind of mix between Star Trek’s The Devil in the Dark and Doctor Who’s own The Macra Terror, where the colony’s leader, or “Cohesion Interface Manager”, Tipple (Alistair Petrie), uses statistical trickery to try and disguise the scale of a problem or the ever increasingly rate of mysterious disappearances, this is the situation into which the Doctor and friends find themselves falling.
Fortunately, the Doctor still has his “Earth Examiner” badge on him so swiftly takes charge of the situation. Actually, part of the fun of the play is the segment where, having successfully, and almost accidentally, overthrown the asteroid’s leadership the Doctor has to grapple with the headaches of being the one in charge, instead of tutting from the sidelines (an idea which, between Ruler of the Universe, Time in Office and this, seems riding a be a bit of a zeitgeist at Big Finish at the moment.) More humour is mined from Tipple’s over-reliance for buzzwords and management speak. Even the title “The Outliers” refers not to the name of the monsters or the purpose of the base, but to the term dismissing the ever increasingly number of victims as no cause for concern. But the humour never threatens to suffocate the elements of horror or moral questioning. In the manner more typical of newer Doctor Who episodes, the conflict is, in part, fuelled by a misunderstanding but the idea of creatures whose perception of time and reality is so different they can’t at first quite detect that the humans are sentient beings is interesting stuff. While sequences of isolated boats stalked by the giant creature beneath the surface or, worse, people overboard treading in the knowledge that they’re not alone are never less than thrilling.The story is buoyed by a great guest cast too. Petrie hits the right balance between bland corporate nothingness, and the real human being underneath, and gives probably one of the most credible ‘Base Commander Cracking Up’ performances decades of Bases Under Siege have thrown up, while Debbie Chazen and Matilda Ziegler both sidestep the ‘sitcom’ expectations some listeners may have had of them to turn in skilled, dramatic performances.
An Early Adventure which manages the rare tightrope walk of being a perfect evocation of the original era without sacrificing any modern standard of characterization or storytelling, The Outliers succeeds in justifying the whole concept of re-casting. For it would be a sadder Doctor Who cosmos in which this wonderfully, spooky little tale didn’t exist.